Smart Environments for Disaster Management: Technical Innovation and Responsibility

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smart environments for disaster management

By Dr Daniel Beech

As disaster management evolves to increasingly embrace smart environments, analysis of the connectivity of human and technical actors is somewhat imperative to understanding resilience and vulnerability. Smart environments, defined as ‘ubiquitous and interactive smart systems that are embedded in the physical environment’ (Wolter and Kirsch, 2017, 234), provide scope to critically assess the value and position of technical platforms, instruments and infrastructures. Underpinned by the geospatial revolution and citizen science (Akter and Wamba, 2017; Gupta et al, 2018), disaster management systems in various global regions are striving to create or strengthen smart environments. Furthermore, mitigation strategies are implemented or adapted based on access to technologies that can provide real-time data collection, autonomous analysis, and a rapid distribution of knowledge and information to various stakeholders (Sinha et al, 2017).

Therefore, from a philosophical perspective, smart environments in disaster management can be indicative of the ‘Internet of Things’, defined as a network that allows for ‘seamless communication, monitoring, and management of smart embedded devices’ (Ray et al, 2017, p.18818). By removing boundaries and overcoming the ‘complex’ elements of disaster management, smart environments constitute seamless overlaps between innovators, policymakers and end-users on the front-line of hazard events. Smart technologies are therefore likely to reduce the potential for conflict and controversy within hazard networks, whilst also improving trust and the transparency of communication.

Introducing Smart Technologies

When studied holistically, the interconnectedness of actors within disaster management highlights the importance of technical innovation, decision-making power and collective accountability. For example, the creation and uptake of GPS software such as ‘Google Crisis Response’ and ‘WAZE’ (Suciu et al, 2017; Yabut et al, 2017), contribute to smart environments by promoting crowdsourcing and the collection of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI). In the context of extreme weather events in the US and the Caribbean, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have strengthened their partnership with WAZE, and empowered citizens through greater situational awareness and the provision of real-time information. For example, a partnership between ESRI and WAZE proved decisive to the actions of the South Carolina Department of Transportation during Hurricane Florence in September 2018 (Puleo, 2018). With the support of FEMA, WAZE had previously proven an appropriate and successful tool for monitoring and communication during Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Meanwhile, mainstream social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, also regularly display the merits of ‘smart’ approaches to disaster management, with their functionality allowing for participatory responses to the Nepal earthquake in 2015 (Dugdale et al, 2017) and Typhoon Hato in 2017 (Xie et al, 2018). In the case of the Nepal earthquake, Facebook’s safety check feature allowed real-time notifications and alerts to be shared by users, whilst also enabling emergency management personnel to locate people based on their profile information and geolocation data. With features such as ‘Safety Check’ and ‘Community Help’, Facebook continue to contribute to the management of both urban and natural hazards. As the use of social media continues to expand in developing global regions with large populations (namely areas such as Southeast Asia and the subcontinent), its influential position within disaster management dictates a future demand for consultation on appropriate use and interpretation, the legitimacy/validity of shared information, and connections between the public and monitoring institutions.

Collectively, emerging digital and virtual technologies are eroding ‘structure’ and institutional hierarchy within disaster management networks, primarily by constituting smart environments that can renegotiate accountability and decision-making practices. However, smart environments have the potential to not only strengthen the resilience of citizens in affected communities, but to also reduce the vulnerability of businesses before, during and after hazard events. For example, Google are providing the digital tools to allow small businesses to prepare, mitigate and recover from flooding (Levy and Prizzia, 2018); technical resources include ‘Google Crisis Maps’ and ‘Google My Business’, both of which are deemed to be readily accessible and navigable.

Assigning Responsibility

By studying disaster management from a ‘smart’ perspective, we can grasp the evolution of responsibility and re-address decision-making; for instance, mobile applications and cloud computing are allowing stakeholders from contrasting backgrounds to provide and share real-time information. Therefore, smart technologies enable data collection practices and obligations to extend beyond academia, science and state-level institutions. By promoting participatory action at a community level (through crowdsourcing and/or social media platforms), the responsibility to communicate can be interpreted as growingly individualistic.

However, there is a need to also acknowledge the process of technical innovation that precedes the implementation and use of smart platforms and software packages. For example, innovators of specific technologies, such as WAZE, could be considered indirectly accountable for the preparedness of informed stakeholder communities, the mitigation of a hazard event, and the efficiency of responsive actions. With many technologies measured according to Technology Readiness Levels, a rigid programme of assessment prior to use, the innovation process can require input and agreement from numerous partners and end-users. Therefore, the legal basis on which smart technologies are integrated into disaster management, and used to provide assistance during hazard events, requires careful consultation. Furthermore, as open source platforms such as WAZE and Ushahidi venture into global regions with closely regulated communications, there is increasing scope and justification for a collective drive to bridging legislation on how technologies are used during hazard events.

The need to focus on this emerging area of research becomes further apparent when recognising the rapidly changing nature of disaster management networks, and the autonomous attributes of many systems and software packages. Therefore, feasibility studies and consultation processes between technicians and hazard mitigation strategists are of considerable value to the assignment of responsibility, policy-making, and ultimately the success of an appropriate technology. For instance, the implementation of the ‘Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector’ (Reichardt et al, 2018), a sophisticated device designed to alert aviation to hazardous concentrations of volcanic ash, has required a stringent and complex consultation process with innovators, monitoring organisations, and the aviation industry.

Therefore, a holistic and integrated view of disaster management networks is required for the dynamics of technical innovation, decision-making and responsibility to be fully understood (Paton and Johnstone, 2017; Koduru, 2018).

In response to this emerging field, GSDM would be pleased to provide governmental, intergovernmental and private sector organisations with expertise on issues affiliated with smart environments and technical innovation, from both legal and inter-disciplinary perspectives.

Dr Daniel Beech is a GSDM associate specialising in Disaster Risk Reduction, Early Warning Systems, Critical Infrastructure, Hazard Communication, and Emerging Technologies.

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